Responding to the rapid changes of the first decades of the twentieth century, Undset was a bold skeptic of modernity who regarded industrialization, materialism, and individualism as threats to social stability. Many of her early essays were directed against the rhetoric of the feminist movement, which, she believed, overlooked the value of the role of women within the traditional circles of family and kin: Undset argued that the rights to vote, to work, and to decide whether to have children must be considered within the context of the individual's greater responsibility to society as a whole. Her concern for the direction of modern society gradually came to include a contemplation of the role of religion, and in 1924 she converted to Roman Catholicism. From this time onward her writing included essays on the Catholic faith, the lives of saints, and pre-Reformation Norwegian history and literature. The issues of women and religion were afforded special attention in essay collections such as Et kvindesynspunkt (A Woman's Point of View, 1919) and Katholsk propaganda (Catholic Propaganda, 1927). Undset's interest was not merely in writing against the current of modern thought; her convictions were rooted in a belief that knowledge of the past should inform the present and the future. Whether she should be labeled a reactionary or an antifeminist has been debated from her own time until the present; one can say for certain, however, that her engagement with the social issues of her day was the wellspring of her fiction.
At the same time, Undset's writing deals not only with social themes but also with the existential aspects of the lives of individuals. In a voice that ranges from biting satire to empathic warmth and subtle humor, Undset brings the plight of the individual to center stage and presents her worldviews with greater nuance and complexity in her fiction than in her nonfiction. Her fictional works go beyond the borders that the conventional designation "new realism" might imply. As a young adult, Undset commented that the Norwegian author Amalie Skram and the Swedish author Lagerlöf were among the Scandinavian women writers of interest to her. She was also influenced by British authors, with Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters among those she most admired. In her novels and short stories set in the contemporary period, Undset portrays the fragile existence of modern men and women in family and love relationships. Where a didactic tone is discernible in her fiction, Undset finds less interest among the reading public and literary critics; she attains her highest artistic achievement and greatest critical acclaim in the works in which she allows her characters, whether medieval or modern, to remain within the tensions and ambiguities of life. In these works Undset creates multiple perspectives and painterly details that draw the reader into the lives of the characters.
Undset was born on 20 May 1882 in Kalundborg, Denmark, the first child of Ingvald Undset, a renowned archaeologist, and Charlotte Undset, née Gyth. In 1884 the family, which by then included her sister, Ragnhild, moved to the capital of the father's native Norway, Christiania (the name of the city was changed to Oslo in 1925), where another daughter, Signe, was born. Undset was schooled at home until the age of eight, and Scandinavian folktales and Danish history were among the subjects her mother taught her. In the essay "Strømmen tyner" (The Current Weakens, 1924) Undset describes another important influence on her early development: "Mine forestillinger og mit fatasiliv var like til jeg kom paa skole direkte og indirekte bestemt av min far og hans arbeide. Hans bibliotek og lille samling av nordiske, sydeuropæiske og lilleasiatiske oldsaker var det dominerende i hjemmets utstyr" (Right up until I started school my ideas and my fantasy life were directly and indirectly determined by my father and his work. His library and small collection of Nordic, Southern European and Asia Minor artifacts were the dominating items in the home). Ingvald Undset worked at the Museum of Antiquities; hoping that his oldest daughter would follow in his footsteps and become an archaeologist, he allowed her to hold Viking swords and elaborate medieval brooches while he related the history of each artifact. Her father's family introduced her to saga literature: on a visit to her relatives in Trondheim she was challenged to read the Icelandic Njåls Saga. The story captivated her, and she later proclaimed the saga a turning point in her life. Though Ingvald Undset's dream for her was not realized, the interest Sigrid inherited for medieval history and literature led to the creation of the most intricate worlds in her fiction.
Undset began her formal schooling at the politically liberal, coeducational Ragna Nielsen School. She was not impressed with the teaching or the progressive ideology of the school; as she describes it, she went through school resisting and curled up "hedgehog wise." On their father's death in 1893 Undset and her sisters were allowed to continue at the school free of charge. At sixteen Undset left the Ragna Nielsen School to take a one-year secretarial course at a commercial school.
In 1899 Undset went to work in the Christiania office of the German engineering firm Allgemeine Elektrizcitäts-Gesellschaft (Universal Electricity Company). In an autobiographical sketch written in conjunction with the awarding of the Nobel Prize, Undset commented that the job taught her discipline. In her fiction set in modern times she often draws on her experiences as a working woman in everyday, middle-class Christiania.
When not working, Undset continued to pursue her interests in art and literature. She dreamed of becoming a painter and read classic literary works ranging from the plays of William Shakespeare to Danish folk ballads. On 8 March 1902 she wrote to her Swedish pen pal, Andrea "Dea" Hedberg, the now celebrated words "jeg vil skabe kunst. Det er det eneste jeg ønsker. Men det er kunstner, jeg vil være, kvindelig kunstner og ikke en pennebrugende dame" (I want to create art. That is the only thing I want. But it is an artist I want to be, a woman artist and not a pen-wielding lady).
A collection of Undset's poems was published in 1910 under the title Ungdom (Youth), but from the beginning the novel was the form that most occupied her. The stories Undset described in her letters to Dea make it clear that the initial ideas for her epics Kristin Lavransdatter, Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken (1925; translated as The Master of Hestviken: The Axe, 1928, and The Master of Hestviken: The Snake Pit, 1929), and Olav Audunssøn og hans børn (1927; translated as The Master of Hestviken: In the Wilderness, 1929, and The Master of Hestviken: The Son Avenger, 1930) were created in the early 1900s. Her first medieval creation, the story of Svend Trøst, developed into the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy; the Olav Audunssøn epic grew out of her second prose piece. In 1905 Undset traveled to Copenhagen to submit the latter manuscript, "Aage Nielssøn til Ulvholm" (Aage Nielssøn of Ulvholm) to the Gyldendal publishing house. The publisher was unenthusiastic about the work and suggested that she not attempt the historical novel again but try writing "something modern" instead. She took the advice, and in 1907 the Aschehoug firm published her novel Fru Marta Oulie (Mrs. Marta Oulie).
The opening statement "Jeg har været min mand utro" (I have been unfaithful to my husband) boldly introduces a novel on a theme that became central to Undset's authorship: ideals as illusions. Fru Marta Oulie is written in diary form as Marta recounts the story of her marriage and her guilt over her affair with her husband's colleague, Henrik. When her husband dies, Marta refuses Henrik's proposal of marriage. The novel offers no happy ending: Marta's attempts to "stille min egen blødende smerte" (quiet my own bleeding pain) by confessing to her diary are only partially successful; her past is all too present, and the future is far from certain. Fru Marta Oulie is a short novel, but it announces Undset's ability to write fiction that is both unsentimental and highly revealing of the modern woman's psychological turmoil.
Undset followed Fru Marta Oulie with a collection of four short stories, Den lykkelige alder (The Happy Age, 1908). Her protagonists include a schoolgirl in "Et halvt dusin lommetørklæder" (A Half Dozen Handkerchiefs) and unmarried working women in Christiania in the two longest stories, "En fremmed" (A Stranger) and "Den lykkelige alder." "Drøm" (Dream) is unusual among the stories in the collection and in Undset's fiction as a whole: written in the first person, it contrasts life and death and nature and the grotesque in a world of dreams. Fru Marta Oulie and Den lykkelige alder were well received both by critics and by the general public.
Undset returned to the Middle Ages as a fictional setting in Fortællingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis (The Tale of Viga-Ljot and Vigdis, 1909; translated as Gunnar's Daughter, 1936). Though this novel, which is often viewed as a pastiche of the saga, does not measure up in quality to her later epics, it demonstrates her knowledge of medieval history and literary style, as well as her ability to build an intense narrative around the themes of male-female relationships, violation, and revenge.
After receiving a stipend from the Norwegian Writers' Association, Undset quit her job in May 1909 and traveled to Denmark, Germany, and Italy. She lived in Rome from late 1909 until the spring of 1910, following a long tradition of Scandinavian artists and writers who had been inspired by the Italian setting to a new sense of freedom and a higher artistic vision. She sent articles and travel descriptions to newspapers in Norway, but her main focus was her fiction. On 12 December she wrote to her friend, the author Nils Collett Vogt, "Jeg har faat en brændende lyst til at skrive noget riktig godt hernede" (I have gotten the burning desire to write something really good down here). Undset began her next novel, Jenny, in Rome and completed it after her return to Christiania in 1910; it was published in 1911.
Jenny marks Undset's breakthrough as an author. In Rome, the idealistic Jenny Winge is striving to realize her dream of becoming an artist. She meets the unimaginative Helge Gram, a Norwegian student who is a stark contrast to Jenny's bohemian artist friends. Her exploration of erotic desire with Helge is the beginning of Jenny's downfall as she views her relationship with a man she does not love as a sign of her failure to wait for her "herre" (master). On a visit to Christiania, Jenny has an affair with Helge's father, Gert, and becomes pregnant. She goes to Germany and gives birth to a son, who soon dies. She then returns to Rome, where she commits suicide after Helge rapes her. Jenny's tragedy is summed up by her grieving friend, Gunnar, who recognizes the impossibility of attaining the ideals by which Jenny had sought to live:
Ingen kvinne har født det barn hun drømte om da hun gikk svanger.--Ingen kunstner har skapt det verk han så for seg i unnfangelsens stund.--Og vi lever sommer etter sommer, men ingen er den vi lengtet mot, da vi bøyde oss og plukket de våte blomster under vårens stormbyger.
(No woman has given birth to the child she dreamed of when she was pregnant.--No artist has created the work he envisioned at the time of its conception.--And we live summer after summer, but none is the one we longed for, when we bent down and picked the wet flowers under the spring's storm clouds.)
Jenny generated much discussion. While most reviewers praised the stark realism and honesty of the novel, it was criticized by some members of the public as immoral because of Undset's portrayal of the bohemian lifestyle and erotic desire. Still others, including feminists, objected to Undset's creation of a female character who was searching for a master instead of for freedom. For Undset, the public reaction was not the most important response to her work. In a 28 February 1912 letter to Vogt, Undset said that she was "glad for at de andre kunstnere, hvis dom jeg bryr meg om, sier at 'Jenny' er god" (happy that the other artists, whose judgment I care about, say that "Jenny" is good).
After the publication of Jenny, Undset received a second stipend that allowed her to spend another extended period of time abroad. In June 1912 she married the painter Anders Castus Svarstad, whom she had met in Rome, at the Norwegian Consulate in Antwerp, Belgium, after Svarstad obtained a divorce from his first wife. They settled in London, where Undset wrote her next collection of short stories, Fattige skjebner (Poor Fates, 1912). The four stories, in which Undset continues to use daring language to depict sexual relationships, present an intimate, sympathetic, and at times subtly humorous view of the lives of working men and women in Christiania. In a 16 November 1912 letter Undset told her friend and fellow writer Nini Roll Anker that she considered the story "Frøken Smith-Tellefsen" (translated as "Miss Smith-Tellefsen," 1959) "det brutaleske jeg noen gang har skrevet" (the most brutal I have ever written). The housekeeper Miss Smith-Tellefsen is portrayed as a vulnerable object of sexual desire and a woman hopelessly confined to a subservient social role. A different narrative strategy--irony--is used in "Selma Brøter" (translated as "Selma Brøter," 1959), about an office gossip. In "Omkring Sædelighedsballet" (translated as "The Charity Ball," 1984) the seamstress Elina and her friend Arnljot discuss the contrasting lives of single working women and their married counterparts. Elina remarks: "Jeg vet bare det, jeg, de som er rike, de skulle betale oss ordentlig, som sliter for dem--hellere enn å fly sta og danse isammen redningshjem for gatejenter i kjoler som dem skylder på--" (I just know that those who are rich, they should pay us decently, all of us who wear ourselves out for them--rather than flit around and dance together a shelter for street girls in dresses they owe money on--). Undset's own criticism of those who attempt to script an unrealistic better life for working women is subtly conveyed in Arnljot's well-intentioned but naive suggestion that Elina move to Paris, where she might be appreciated for her skills.
In December 1912 Undset and her husband moved to Rome. The following month a son, Anders, was born. The baby was sickly, and Undset took him to Christiania for medical treatment; Svarstad rejoined them in the summer of 1913.
In Undset's next novel, Vaaren (Spring, 1914), the married female protagonist keeps her family together through a crisis. The work is generally viewed as one in which a moralizing tone overwhelms the aesthetic quality. It was followed by Undset's retelling of a well-known legend in Fortællinger om Kong Artur og ridderne av det runde bord (Tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, 1915).
In 1915 Undset gave birth to a second child, Maren Charlotte, who was mentally disabled. The family lived in Ski, near Christiania, until 1916, when they moved to the capital. The household increased by three when Svarstad's children by his first marriage moved in with them in the fall of 1916.
Undset returned to the portrayal of distinctly modern subjects in Splinten av troldspeilet (The Splinter in the Troll Mirror, 1917). Each of the two stories that make up this work, "Fru Hjelde" (translated as Images in a Mirror, 1938) and "Fru Waage," involves a young wife who must choose between her husband and her lover; in each case the woman's idealistic vision of happiness in an extramarital affair is "corrected" by her realization that such relationships do not guarantee joy. Fru Hjelde returns to her husband and children, while Fru Waage, who has lost her child, divorces her husband and remarries. In "Fru Hjelde" Undset revisits a character she first presented in Den lykkelige alder, the actress Uni Hjelde.
Undset's next book, De kloge jomfruer (The Wise Virgins, 1918), is another collection of stories. While her previous characters often learned life's lessons through misguided attempts to choose between contradictory values, the female protagonists in De kloge jomfruer become wise through suffering injustice. Undset offers no solutions to the characters' problems but ends the stories with the protagonists' experiencing sorrow in broken relationships--girlhood friendship, motherhood, and marriage, respectively. De kloge jomfruer was the last of Undset's major works in the short-story form and the last for many years in which she used a contemporary setting.
While Undset was exploring her characters' fictional dilemmas, her own marriage was falling apart. She related her frustration and sense of isolation in a letter to Anker on 22 October 1918, concluding: "Jeg vet selv at nogenting maa jeg gjøre nu, for dette gaar fanivold" (I know myself that something has to be done now, for this is going to hell). In 1919 Undset moved to Lillehammer with her son and daughter; later that year she gave birth to another son, Hans.
After her move to Lillehammer, Undset completed the final essay for Et kvindesynspunkt, a collection of articles she had written between 1912 and 1919 on women's roles in society. She then set about building the literary creations of her youth into the multivolume novels about Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunssøn.
In Kristin Lavransdatter Undset weaves folklore and medieval literature into a complex narrative. The work consists of the volumes Kransen (1920; translated as The Bridal Wreath, 1923), Husfrue (1922; translated as The Mistress of Husaby, 1925), and Korset (1922; translated as The Cross, 1927) that follow the title character's life from her childhood to her death from the plague in 1349. In the first volume Kristin defies tradition and her family by breaking her engagement to their likable neighbor Simon to marry Erlend Nikulausson. The second volume contrasts romance to reality as Kristin's marriage to the irresistible but irresponsible Erlend becomes a lifelong trial. Erlend's political intrigues, infidelity, and social decline prompt Kristin increasingly to seek a moral and religious dimension to her life. In the last volume Erlend dies defending Kristin's honor; Kristin enters Rein cloister, where she falls victim to the Black Death. On her deathbed Kristin finally understands herself to be God's servant, "eid av den herre og konge som nu kom, båret på prestens viede hender, for å gi henne frihet og frelse" (owned by the lord and king that now came, carried on the priest's devout hands, to give her freedom and salvation).
Undset's masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter was immediately recognized as a compelling narrative that integrated medieval history and fiction in an unprecedented manner. The trilogy contributed to a debate over the extent to which Catholicism was an integral part of the Norwegian medieval mentality. In recognition of the work, Undset was awarded a yearly author's salary by the Norwegian government. Undset's best-known work internationally, Kristin Lavransdatter has been translated into more than seventy languages.
In 1921 Undset bought the home in Lillehammer in which she had been living and named it "Bjerkebæk." She translated Viga-Glum's saga, Kormak's saga, and Bandamanna saga into Norwegian and published them in the collection Tre sagaer om islændinger (Three Sagas of Icelanders, 1923). She began formal instruction in Roman Catholicism in 1923; her marriage to Svarstad was dissolved in 1924, the year she converted to Catholicism. Also in 1924 she contributed a selection of folktales and the essay "Strømmen tyner," which compares the relationship to folk literature of traditional and modern society, to the folklorist Rikard Berge's Norsk sogukunst (The Art of Norwegian Folk Narrative).
Undset's next work of fiction was the two-part Olav Audunssøn epic, which originated in the plot of her rejected manuscript "Aage Nielssøn til Ulvholm." Pubished in 1925 and 1927, respectively, Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken and Olav Audunssøn og hans børn are, like Kristin Lavransdatter, set in the Middle Ages. Olav's supposed son, Eirik, is, in reality, the son of a man Olav murdered. As Olav grows old, he is faced with the necessity of revealing that the rightful heir to his farm, Hestviken, is not Eirik but Cecilia, his daughter by his wife, Ingunn. Olav is, however, spared from exposing the truth when Eirik leaves Hestviken and becomes a monk. Olav's life is dominated by brooding over his failure to reconcile himself with God. The critical reception of the Olav Audunssøn novels was positive, but the main character was generally viewed as a less interesting personality than Kristin Lavransdatter. The later work was also seen as more demanding of the reader because of Undset's complex investigation of belief and redemption. More-recent interpretations have recognized the narrative sophistication of the Olav Audunssøn epic.
For her two medieval epics Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928. She gave some of the prize money to Den norske forfatterforeningen (The Norwegian Authors' Union), of which she was a member throughout her career, and used larger portions to set up trust funds to help parents care for their mentally disabled children at home and to support Catholic families in paying for their children to be educated at Catholic schools.
The success of Kristin Lavransdatter and the award of the Nobel Prize led to many requests for Undset to give speeches and grant interviews. She responded to many of these requests but refused to comment on the meaning of her novels, insisting that interpretation of a work is the responsibility of the reader.
Undset turned from the medieval to the modern period in the novel Gymnadenia (1929; translated as The Wild Orchid, 1931) and its sequel, Den brænnende busk (1930; translated as The Burning Bush, 1932), which deal with Paul Selmer's conversion to Roman Catholicism. In the novels Ida Elisabeth (1932; translated, 1933) and Den trofaste hustru (1936; translated as The Faithful Wife, 1937) Undset presents religious belief as a space within which modern and self-sufficient women can find purpose and harmony within the fragile circle of the family. Undset alludes through intertextual reference and metaphor in Ida Elisabeth and through character delineation in Den trofaste hustru to the contrast between Christian and fascist views of the worth of the individual. Her memories of her childhood in Kalundborg are recounted in the autobiographical novel Elleve aar (Eleven Years, 1934; translated as The Longest Years, 1935), which recounts the life of a girl named Ingvild from birth until her father's death when she is eleven. Undset also continued to write hagiography: Saga of Saints (1934) and its Norwegian version, Norske helgener (Norwegian Saints, 1937), include chapters on St. Olav and St. Sunniva and an essay on the impacts of the tenth-century conversion to Christianity and of the Reformation on Norwegian culture. Undset served as chairperson of Den norske forfatterforeningen from 1935 to 1940.
Undset's daughter and mother both died in 1939. That year she published Madame Dorthea (translated, 1940), set in Denmark in the late 1700s; it was intended as the first volume of an historical epic, but plans for the work were interrupted by World War II, and the additional volumes were never written. Undset joined the protest against the actual and impending human tragedy of war in Europe, writing articles and speeches that warned against fascism and the growing threat from Germany. Because Undset's anti-Nazi stance was well known to German authorities, she fled to Sweden when Germany invaded Norway in April 1940. On her arrival in Stockholm she learned that her son Anders had been killed fighting the Germans. Undset was soon joined by her son Hans, with whom she traveled via Russia and Japan to the United States. They arrived in San Francisco in August and moved on to New York City.
During her exile Undset furthered the Norwegian cause by informing Americans about the nation. Early in her stay she spoke at colleges and universities across the country, but she spent most of her time in New York. Her literary production included Return to the Future (1942; original Norwegian version published as Tilbake til Fremtiden, 1945), describing her journey to the United States; Happy Times in Norway (1942; original Norwegian version published as Lykkelige Dager, 1947), written in response to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's suggestion that exiled authors provide Americans a glimpse of the way children grow up in foreign lands; Sigurd and His Brave Companions (1943), a children's story set in the Middle Ages; and an essay on the Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher for his Twelve Stories (1945). She also edited True and Untrue (1945), a collection of Norwegian folk tales in English. Requests for Undset to write for and speak to American audiences on Norwegian culture and wartime perspectives resulted in many pieces, a selection of which is included in Artikler og taler fra krigstiden (Articles and Speeches from Wartime, 1952).
In a letter to Hans on 22 September 1943 Undset expressed her doubts that she would write any major works of fiction after the war: "Ser du, hele den verden som jeg hadde røtter i og kunde gjenskape i tankene og arbeide med i fantasien, den er borte, det vet jeg godt. Jeg håber jeg kan utrette litt endda, i den verden som skal bygges op, men jeg er gammel, og er blitt rykket op med alle røtter" (You see, the entire world that I had my roots in and could re-create in my thoughts and work with in my imagination is gone, I know that. I hope that I can still accomplish a little, in the world that will be built up, but I am old, and have been pulled up by all my roots). Undset's doubts proved true: she never wrote another work of fiction.
Undset returned to Bjerkebæk after the war in 1945. She received several awards for her contributions during the war; the most significant was the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olaf from the Norwegian government in 1947. That same year Undset gave a negative response to a suggestion that Kristin Lavransdatter be dramatized; she did not think that the expanse of the trilogy could be captured on stage or screen. In 1948 Undset visited her birthplace, Kalundborg, but cut short her trip to Denmark because of poor health. She entered the hospital in Lillehammer with a kidney infection and died on 10 June 1949. Her biography Caterina av Siena (translated as Catherine of Siena, 1954) appeared posthumously in 1951. Since her death, both theatrical and film adaptations of Kristin Lavransdatter have been produced. In 1997 an unfinished manuscript was found among Undset's papers at Bjerkebæk; believed to have been written during Undset's exile in the United States, it is a continuation of the story of Ingvild in Elleve aar and was published as Tolv år (Twelve Years, 1998). The two accounts are more poetic than documentary narratives and offer points of comparison with some of Undset's early fiction.
Undset's literary works became an integral part of Norwegian culture during her lifetime. Her fiction, especially, has engaged a tremendous audience by presenting characters whose conflicts and longings are common to Everyman and Everywoman. The strength of her historical and modern realist fiction stemmed from her desire to investigate human existence from the perspectives of past and present, tradition and modernity; the roles, choices, and responsibilities of women were central to this investigation.
In the twenty-first century Undset is still a central part of the Norwegian cultural and literary landscape. From her picture on the 500-crown bill to a prize winning biography for young adults published in 2001 to dramatizations of her life and works, Undset remains present to a wide audience. Scholars continue to investigate the ideological commitments in her fiction and recognize the importance of nature and medieval literature as sources of expression in her texts. Possible areas for further research include Undset's role in the creation of Norwegian national identity, the boldness of her exploration of erotic desire in the context of her time, and her narrative strategies in approaching what she considered the culmination of all investigations: the truth. As letters and other materials become available, and the publication of new research and new translations continues, it is safe to say that the story of Sigrid Undset will continue to be written.
From: Berguson, Claudia. "Sigrid Undset (20 May 1882-10 June 1949)." Twentieth-Century Norwegian Writers, edited by Tanya Thresher, vol. 297, Gale, 2004, pp. 295-306. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 297.